I know that the snow and ice are not gone. Or that winter winds won’t blow their Arctic breath across these canyons. I know the calendar says March, but I also know that winter can linger like an obnoxious guest, overstaying their welcome and not knowing when to leave. I know the heat and warmth of spring will arrive, that memories of morning ice will thaw, but that winter may still make a cameo appearance. All this knowledge, but it is the tell-tale signs of blooming wildflowers that indicates spring has sprung.
March is a fickle month in Canyon Country. Seventy degrees one week and snow the next. I’ve experienced the spring break week in shorts and sandals or decked out in down parkas and snow boots. One has to be ready for whatever weather curveballs Spring throws.
But as the daylight hours lengthen and the temperatures start to rise, it is the appearance of desert wildflowers that gives me hope spring is just around the next canyon wall.
Depending upon the year, I have found wildflowers blooming as early as January 1. Of course, those plants were growing in south-facing sheltered locations, gathering extra warmth from the surrounding sandstone and protected from sand-blasting winds.
February, too, may welcome some hardy perennials or weedy annuals to the wildflower report, but March is the real kick-off season when the wildflower season gets into gear.
Some of the earliest perennial wildflowers to send up their flowering stalks are members of the Carrot, Mustard and Pea families.
Often the first plant that I find in bloom is the Parry’s Lomatium (Lomatium parryi). This Carrot family member sends up its flowering stalks first, almost like sending out the groundhog to see if winter is over. The low growing, flat-topped clusters of tiny yellowish flowers may be easily overlooked unless you are looking for this transition time from winter to spring. Named for Charles Christopher Parry (1823-1890) who was the first official botanist of the U.S.D.A. and western plant collector, this plant an early spring season pioneer.
Another close relative of the lomatium is the Canyonlands biscuitroot (Lomatium latilobum). An endemic, this plant is found in association with Entrada Sandstone and has a very limited distribution. Prime examples of the plant grow in Arches National Park’s Fiery Furnace. Arising from taproots often buried deep in small sand dunes, these plants were harvested by Native Americans as a food source. Both lomatiums attract flies as pollinators; the Canyonlands biscuitroot may perfume the air with a skunk-like aroma to entice the winged pollinators to their flowers.
Adding splashes of yellow to the landscape, low-growing members of the Mustard family, twinpods have four spatula-shaped petals, and these flowers turn into inflated pods later in the plant’s life cycle. The twin seedpods, fused along a common seam, give rise to the common name.
Though the procession of desert wildflowers is just gaining speed in March, this parade has a number of representatives that add splashes of color to the landscape. Indian paintbrush, toadflax, locoweed, popcorn plant, evening primrose, and cave primrose are some of the many perennial plants that may bloom early in spring. The annual wildflowers, whose seeds have lain dormant through the winter, are also stirring to life if the soil holds sufficient moisture. Their emergence is just behind these early perennials and contributes to the “Sproing” of spring.